National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Washington Program Provides Safety Net for Children at Risk

Founder, a Catholic convert, tends to physical, emotional, and spiritual needs

BY William Murray

November 08-14, 1998 Issue | Posted 11/8/98 at 1:00 PM

 

WASHINGTON—Scores of Washington youth are finding a form of salvation in Hannah M. Hawkins' Children of Mine Youth Center Inc.

The Center, located in the Anacostia neighborhood of Southeast Washington, serves at least 65 children four days a week. Primarily an after-school education center, it tries to instill basic values such as respect for self and others, a strong work ethic, good study habits, and reverence for God.

Hawkins, a convert to Catholicism, founded the Center 16 years ago after providing drug counseling for adults in the city and observing that the hospitals did not provide adequate services for boarder babies who were exposed to crack cocaine.

“She saw the need for the Center,” said one of Hawkins' seven sisters, Joyce Frazier, who also volunteers. Since 100 children or more flood the Center on some days, it's clear she's tapped an unmet need.

“She knows the children are our future,” explained Wanda Robinson, the Center's volunteer coordinator. “If she could just change one young person's life, she would feel her life's complete.”

Some of the parents of Children of Mine Youth are addicted to alcohol, crack cocaine and other drugs, and some children have suffered physical and sexual abuse. “The sad part is that the children suffer,” Robinson told the Register.

“I got involved here and saw the faces of these children and couldn't leave,” said Robinson, who has volunteered there for more than eight years. Children ranging from 4 to 18 years old come to the Center.

Robinson, a former foster parent, became involved in the Center through her Baptist church and continued to go even when the other members of her distant congregation stopped coming. Even though she lives an hour away in Manassas, Va., she requested a night shift at work so she could work at the Center from 3:30 to 8 four days each week.

Earl Smith, who has volunteered for four years, originally came to help a friend and “fell in love with it.” A 35-year-old Pentecostal, he's preparing to become a single foster parent. He feels that he already has some parental experience. “I'm a parent to all the kids who come here,” he said as he prepared the children's dinner on a recent afternoon.

The largest number of volunteers is a group of Catholic University of America students who trek to Children of Mine Youth Center from the school's Northeast Washington campus, according to Robinson.

“We get very few volunteers from the District of Columbia,” said Hawkins, a native of the city. “We don't get as much support as I'd like.” She wishes that churches would be more involved in providing volunteers.

Hawkins and her volunteers provide meals for the children, as well as clothing and tutoring in mathematics and reading. Each student is expected to complete his homework, read a book, or have one read to him before playing, Robinson said. The kids can take computer classes, learn to sew, and they also work on arts and crafts.

“The Center's mission is to do far more than merely meet the physical needs of its children,” Hawkins wrote in her mission and philosophy statement. “Attending to emotional and spiritual needs is seen as being of equal importance in the effort to save our children.”

The children study the Bible weekly and travel to Brandywine, Md., on Saturdays to visit Father Robert Pittman's Body of Christ farm, where they plant vegetables. Occasionally, Hawkins provides foster care and adoption services, she said.

A prominent pro-chastity poster in the dining room area features the picture of an infant to show what the results of “going all the way” can be for teen-agers. Hawkins, who has five grown children, also holds special classes for boys and girls. The kids can also play on basketball, baseball, and football teams at the Center.

Ubiquitous signs on the Center's walls announce Hawkins' rules for the students and volunteers. The No. 1 rule for the children seems to be to clean up after themselves, an idea Hawkins expects volunteers to promote among the kids when they're at the Center.

“I come down on them in love, not in hate,” explained Hawkins. “I might tell one, you're a beautiful child, but you'd be even more beautiful if you'd bathe? For me, cleanliness is next to godliness.” Hawkins and her volunteers help to fill in the spaces for the kids and teach them hygiene and manners, as well as good personal habits and about God.

Each day closes with a “rap session,” in which the children and volunteers talk with Hawkins about what happened that day at the Center. “A lot of kids don't want to leave,” Hawkins said. Obtaining a larger center where kids could stay would help her even more.

“They're home alone and on their own,” she said of the kids. “People don't understand the depth, the seriousness, of what's going on. We have a lot of mean-spirited, junkyard children behind us who are not being reached” due to parental neglect. Hawkins added that the parents' attitude is, “I conceived you, I don't believe in abortion, so you're here. Don't bother me; I can't cope.” In many cases, parents don't even come to pick the children up in the evening, Hawkins said.

“As a disciple (of Jesus Christ), this is what I try to do,” she explained. “I'm just a foot soldier” — an apt self-description as she doesn't own a car. On many evenings after the Center closes, she finds herself accompanying the children home. Recently, she's been searching for a donated van that would help her with her weekly outreach work, as well as take the stranded children home.

In 1997, Washington's Caring Institute gave its Caring Award to Hawkins, in honor of her work, Robinson said.

A D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, Hawkins launched the Center in her home to meet her constituents' needs and moved it to a two-room Anacostia apartment three years later, in 1985. When the members outgrew those accommodations, the Center bought a free-standing house in 1993 with a basketball court on the side lot.

Hawkins said she does not accept any federal or local government funding because she feels it would restrain her and hinder the work she does.

William Murray writes from Kensington, Maryland.